December 18th, 2014

GREAT GUY (1936) ** ½

James Cagney stars as a worker for The Department of Weights and Measures. When his boss is severely injured in an accident, Cagney takes over his job. He goes around the city shaking crooked businesses down that cheat their customers. Cagney is bribed by gangsters to turn a blind eye to the rampant corruption. He then sets out to take the gangsters head-on and clean up the city.

I’m not sure that the life of the head of The Department of Weights and Measures is as exciting and interesting as this movie makes it out to be. Cagney plays the role like he’s Elliot Ness or something. When Cagney catches a butcher putting lead weights inside of chickens to increase the price, he slaps him around. Is this believable at all? Probably not, but it is pretty entertaining.

I mean was there really a rash of businesses scamming their customers with crooked scales in the ‘30s? I guess The Depression was harder than I thought. Maybe this sort of high-risk job was phased out once they started publishing Consumer Reports.

This is one weird idea for a movie, but I sort of dug it. Although it gets off to a good start, the film stalls once Cagney is framed by the gangsters and has to clear his name. Even at 66 minutes, it still feels a bit long too. Cagney is really good though, and Mae Clark (from Frankenstein) makes for a solid love interest.

AKA: Pluck of the Irish.

THE FIRE IN FRANCESCA (1977) **

A movie starlet named Francesca (Patty Boyd) is found murdered. Her agent hires a private detective (Roger Caine) to find her missing diary because it might contain some incriminating evidence against some very important people. He pounds the pavement and interviews several people who knew her. Eventually, he finds out she’s actually alive and well, and of course, he gets to bone her.

Directed by Shaun (Water Power) Costello (who also appears as the sleazy agent), The Fire in Francesca is sorely lacking the crazy touches the man is known for. The first two sex scenes are mostly bland and predictable. (Blow job, 69, sex, money shot, repeat.) Costello also has a bad habit of cutting away to a dialogue scene right in the middle of the lovemaking. These interruptions break up the sex scenes and prevent them from gaining much momentum. We still get a good casting couch threeway scene with Vanessa Del Rio, Jean Dalton, and Ron Dorfman, and Boyd has a decent threeway with two guys too.

The plot scenes aren’t that bad. Costello has fun with the detective clichés and some of the narration is good for a laugh. The acting pretty much sucks though and there are lots of flubbed lines (although let’s face it, we’re not watching this for the acting). Still, it’s only 60 minutes long, so there’s that.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014) ** ½

Finally. Here we are at last. The third and final chapter of what really could’ve been one movie.

After Bard (Luke Evans) slays Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch), dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) takes control of the Lonely Mountain. When Bard’s people come to the mountain seeking shelter, Thorin turns them away. This not only riles up Bard, but the elves (led by Lee Pace) as well. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) knows that Thorin is only acting like a jackass because he’s got “Dragon Fever” and wants to hoard the gold in the mountain for himself, so he sets out to make a truce. Then, wouldn’t you know it? The orcs show up and start a big brouhaha for control of the mountain.

After a strong start (where we actually get to see Smaug do some desolating for a change), director Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies quickly dives headfirst into overkill. At 144 minutes, this is by far the shortest Hobbit/Rings movie yet, and somehow it feels like the longest. Nearly two hours’ worth of footage is devoted to the titular battle and it all gets quite numbing after a while. Somewhere along the way, you start suffering from “Battle" fatigue.

Sure, there are some good moments here. For starters, we get plenty of decapitations in the battle scenes. There is a sweet part where Pace impales a half dozen orcs on his reindeer and then cuts all of their heads off with one fell swoop of his sword. I also liked the fight Legolas (Orlando Bloom) had in a crumbling tower, and I thought the giant trolls with slingshots on their back were cool. Still, there’s nothing here that comes close to matching the awesome barrel chase sequence from The Desolation of Smaug.

The best moments though are the ones that directly tie back to The Lord of the Rings movies. The highlight comes when Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Saruman (Christopher Lee) rescue the imprisoned Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and unwittingly unleash Sauron. I also dug when Bilbo got his armor, and when Legolas was sent on his quest to find Stryder. These moments are nice, but they don’t exactly make the movie.

As for the 48fps, it didn’t do much for me this time out. Maybe I’ve just gotten accustomed to its charms. The Smaug scene looked awesome, but the rest of the film didn’t really benefit from the technology. The 3-D isn’t all that great either as only the occasional arrow and errant sword protrude from the screen. So if you see it in 2-D, you really won’t be missing much.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in ten years’ time Jackson announces The Appendices: The Movie: Part 1 (of 6).

HIGH ANXIETY (1977) ** ½

Mel Brooks’ spoof of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers isn’t one of his best, but it has enough laughs to please indiscriminate fans of both Brooks and Hitchcock. Brooks stars as the new director at the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous who suffers from “High Anxiety”, which causes him to freak out in stressful situations. Many of his new associates don’t agree with his appointment and they make it very clear that he isn’t welcome. Brooks tries to help a beautiful blonde (Madeline Kahn) try to free her father whose been wrongly imprisoned in the institute all the while trying to clear his name of murder.

The set-up is something that Hitchcock would approve of. Brooks has reverence for his subject (Brooks dedicates the film to Hitch during the opening credits sequence), but that doesn’t exactly make it funny. The scenes that specifically reference Hitchcock films are hit and miss. The Psycho shower sequence (featuring co-screenwriter and future director Barry Levinson) is (no pun intended) a wash, but the scene that spoofs The Birds is pretty funny.

The movie works much better whenever it’s doing its own thing. There’s a scene where Harvey Korman examines a patient and frightens him with dime store vampire teeth that’s hysterical. The running gag of Brooks’ valet (Ron Carey) being unable to lift heavy objects sets old after a while though. The bit where Brooks and Kahn pretend to be old people to sneak past security runs on too long and isn’t very funny either.

Still, it’s worth a look just to see Brooks’ usual cast doing their thing. Cloris Leachman is very funny as Nurse Diesel who doubles as an S & M mistress. Harvey Korman is great as usual as Brooks’ rival and Madeline Kahn is always fun to watch (especially in the scene where she mistakes Brooks getting strangled for an obscene caller).